On March 1, after a day of lifting and arranging at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Ariel Bowman could finally sit and take it all in.
For the first time in her young career, the 24-year-old sculptor looked around a gallery and saw nothing but her own work, the 10 distinctive pieces of her first solo show.
“I was just staring at everything, wondering if it looked how I imagined it would,” she said, standing in the same gallery a few days later.
“It feels like a big jumping-off point, is the only way I could describe it.
“I’ve noticed since I graduated from art school that an artistic career is just a lot of ups and downs,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician or an actor or a painter or a sculptor. Things just kind of snowball and you ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“But this feels like I’m on an up right now.”
As well it should. Her work was selected last summer from among about 300 Texas painters, photographers and sculptors to be featured at the Community Arts Center this month.
Bowman’s biggest moment in the spotlight will come at a reception Saturday night, a highlight of the wildly popular Spring Gallery Night. The annual event draws thousands of art lovers to galleries and museums across Tarrant County.
In Bowman’s work, patrons will find an unusual take on a familiar sculpting subject — animals. Her show, “The Prehistoric Circus,” is a series of prehistoric animals such as ancient elephants, sloths and rhinos whimsically depicted in a circus setting.
“Her vision is intriguing, and her skill level as far as just rendering makes it vital and exciting to look at,” said Elaine Taylor, manager of the Texas Artists Coalition, the show’s sponsor.
“I see a lot of [sculpted] longhorns and other animals. These have a pathos and an emotional quality to them that you just don’t see.”
Kenneth Craighead, a Dallas gallery owner, was the juror who last summer culled through 1,400 pieces to select Bowman’s work for the show.
“Ariel’s work was so unique and well-crafted it immediately captured our attention. She presented a fresh idea and thought through her sculpture,” Craighead said last week. “We noticed that the little creatures brought smiles and questions from the viewers. That is a great accomplishment for any artist.”
Bowman, a native of Flower Mound and a 2011 graduate of the prestigious Kansas City Art Institute, has worked seven days a week for the last seven months to create enough pieces to fill the gallery. It’s been a labor of love and, perhaps, an inspiration to all aspiring artists living hand-to-mouth in pursuit of their passion.
“My friends didn’t choose something like this,” she said. “They are making a ton of money, buying cars and houses at my age. It kind of feels like maybe I’ll never get there. It’s hard sometimes, yeah. But it’s stuff like this that makes it worth it, for sure. It makes it feel like I didn’t waste the last seven months of my life.”
Art all around
Bowman’s mother, Karmien, is a potter and sculptor who has taught art for 24 years at Tarrant County College. Her father, Alton, restores antique furniture. Art was everywhere in her childhood, and her family members were regulars at local museums. Ariel was always sketching as a child.
But until she was a senior at Flower Mound High School, she planned to pursue a career in zoology.
“I realized I was taking an AP biology class and four art classes,” she said. “I wasn’t really enjoying the biology. I was bored. But I found that every day I was excited to go to school because I knew I was going to art class.”
One of her art teachers suggested that Bowman take her work, then mostly drawings and paintings, to a portfolio day in Dallas where hundreds of prospective students presented their work to representatives of art schools from across the nation. Among them was the Kansas City Art Institute, which offered Bowman a scholarship.
Notions of a career in science were left behind.
She spent her first year at the institute working in a variety of mediums. Bowman gravitated toward sculpture, partly because of its tactile, three-dimensional nature. But what to sculpt?
An early assignment was to visit Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum and use a piece from its collection as inspiration.
“There was this huge marble lion,” Bowman remembered. “It was really strange-looking, and it got me thinking. I had always loved animals.”
About the same time, Bowman came across a Discovery Channel program on prehistoric beasts. That led to her own unusual creation in the student studio, a prehistoric horse with claws and the torso of a gorilla.
“Everybody loved the idea of an animal they had never seen before,” Bowman said. “And he sold at the end of the semester. I thought, ‘Huh. People really like this.’ ”
A labor of love
As she pursued art, friends from Texas were struggling to find their own paths.
“My best friend told me, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to major in. I don’t like anything [as much as] you like art,’ ” Bowman said. “She ended up doing something that made her a lot of money.
“But she always tells me, ‘I hate my job.’ I say, ‘But look at all the stuff you have.’ She says, ‘But it’s not worth it. All the time I spend on the telephone selling stuff that I don’t care about.’ ”
Bowman’s art, meanwhile, continued to flourish as she developed her unusual prehistoric oeuvre. But as a student, her work was darker, depicting the animals straining against ropes and chains.
“The main focus of those pieces were the animals struggling to survive, or struggling against each other or our struggle against them,” Bowman said. “They made people feel tense. I guess that’s how I felt at the time. I was getting ready to graduate from art school with no idea of what I was going to do.”
It was during a residency in Florida that Bowman saw the more whimsical, comical work of students and instructors.
“I just felt like there was something about my personality that didn’t come through in my work,” she said. “I like to be the funny one, and I really think that these chained-up animals made people sad. Animals don’t make me sad. They make me happy. That’s where the prehistoric circus came from.
“It was freeing. I feel that I know myself a little better and am more confident. Before, I wouldn’t put a sloth on a bicycle. Now, not only do I put him on a bicycle, I gave him a tiny little fez. I did it just because it made me laugh.”
Her first two circus pieces were done during the Florida residency, which ended last summer. Shortly after her return to Texas, she learned of her selection to solo in the Texas Artists Coalition show this month.
That set off a creative frenzy to come up with enough work to fill the gallery. It helped that her day-job employers at Schaefer Art Bronze Casting in Arlington have always supported her career by giving her extra time to work on her sculpture.
“I was desperate to use this opportunity to fill a gallery with the circus,” Bowman said. “This was a real kick in the pants. Normally, I kind of putter in the studio and let myself think a lot about stuff before I actually do anything. This time, I had to come up with an idea and stick with it.”
Her last piece was finished just days before the show was installed at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
“I was just kind of flabbergasted,” she said. “I just kind of sat down and looked at it. Seven months of my life in one room.”
As she stood in the gallery, Bowman reflected on the hard times — the repeated rejection from art shows, pieces blowing up in the kiln, typically empty bank accounts.
“My boyfriend sees that I get real depressed,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘Why did I choose this?’ ”
A big part of the answer is on display Saturday.